What Machine Learning and Draymond Green Have To Do With Education

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Barbara Jenkins, Superintendent of Orange County Schools, (left), Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute and Susanna Schrobsdorff, TIME magazine discuss education at Fortune Brainfest Tech conference

Sure, that sounds like a total click bait headline. But weirdly enough, it’s not.

For the past 15 years, technology entrepreneurs, investors and others have gathered in Aspen, CO in the summer, drawn to a conference convened by Fortune magazine called Brainstorm Tech. Attendees revel in the chance to dip a toe into the jetstream of technology. (Here’s Fortune’s coverage.)

This year delivered nicely on that promise, with conversations that ricocheted from the latest advances in machine learning, augmented reality and self-driving cars, to Disney’s most complex theme park ever (now open in Shanghai) and investor Yuri Milner’s plans to seek out life in the neighboring star system of Alpha Centauri. (Hint: It will take about 50 years). Golden State Warriors’ basketball star, Draymond Green, talked about his growing passion for technology and real estate. Although he said he never wants to crush a child’s dream of playing basketball, he does nudge them to develop a backup interest in areas such as technology.

“Big data” seems to have been swallowed up by an even bigger concept: Machine intelligence, which also goes by the names machine learning and when people are feeling a bit snarky, artificial intelligence. The confluence of data, sophisticated programs for measuring and comparing that data, and monstrously fast computing power for running those algorithms is shaping up to make machines that promise to simultaneously cure cancer--and wipe out countless jobs.

And then there was a special convening on the still-unkept promise of education technology.

Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs biography and chief executive of the Aspen Institute, drew an eclectic group of about two dozen education leaders, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, researchers and others. His question were pointed: If technology has created billions of dollars of new products in so many other fields over the past five years, why has its impact on education seemed so muted? And what – if anything – should be done to help technology make a positive impact on teaching and learning?

The participants in the session had plenty of stories of schools and teachers that have been changing students’ lives because of their deft use of technology. Barbara Jenkins, Superintendent of Orange County (FL) Public Schools and Ann Blakeney Clark, who runs Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, pointed to many standout schools—and also to the challenges faced by teachers when their students have no access to computers or bandwidth to continue their work at home.

Joel Rose pointed out that some schools are making powerful changes to their model of education – another essential ingredient to ensuring that schools are using relevant technology. Hadi Partovi, cofounder, Code.org, noted how teachers are eager to find great sources of technology curriculum for their schools.

Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, and Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, pointed up the need to support girls and underprivileged students in learning how to master the emerging digital world so that they can become the driver of future generations of technology change. Linda Burch, cofounder of Common Sense Media, added that also critical is giving students a strong background in digital citizenship so they know how to conduct and protect themselves in the digital world.

Joel Rose, chief executive of the nonprofit, NewClassrooms, pointed out that some schools are making powerful changes to their model of education – another essential ingredient to ensuring that schools are using relevant technology. Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist of digital culture and researcher at the University of Calif., Irvine, underscored the importance of giving students a voice in guiding their learning experiences. “It’s about every kid figuring out how they learn,” said Brian Greenberg, chief executive of Silicon Schools.

And yet—no matter how stunning the algorithms, there continues to be a powerful job for teachers in education, noted Karen Cator, chief executive of Digital Promise. Learning curriculum is just one part of a richer school experience, which includes social emotional learning and related skills, said Jessica Berlinski, an edtech entrepreneur.

The group wrapped up the conversation by prioritizing four draft recommendations of changes that could help unlock the power of technology to accelerate learning, which Jenkins and Isaacson shared with the entire Fortune convening.

The points are, emphasized Jenkins, the beginning of a conversation, not a blueprint for action. The points were:

  1. Ensure that all public school students have high-speed internet access, devices, and tech support at school and at home;
  2. Start a national campaign to showcase and expand excellence in learning innovation;
  3. Radically reimagine the classroom to enable personalized learning
  4. Teach computer science (broadly defined_ at every grade level, starting in kindergarten.

“Technology doesn’t cure all. It’s a tool that can be used effectively by all teachers,” Jenkins said.

“This is a challenge for you to do something! “ Isaacson told the assembled group. And he promised to report back at next year's conference on progress.

Veterans of countless focus groups and panels, the education group members said that actions will count for more than just strategies. Even so, “It’s encouraging to see tech taking such a heartfelt interest in improving education,” Rose of New Classrooms. “We need all hands on deck.”

Editor's note: Betsy Corcoran was a participant in Fortune's education gathering. 

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